Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another Vampire Of The Plant World

This benign looking vertical pinecone, as it is sometimes called, is actually a Conopholis americana, or Squaw Root, or Cancer Root.  A member of the Orobanchacae, or Broomrape family, it is another chlorophyll free plant that feeds off of Oak Tree roots.  And because it really takes so little nutrients, it doesn't harm or weaken the tree.

Because the word "squaw" is such a derogitory term, I hate using it, but the plant got its name from Native women boilng the roots to make an astringent, that they then applied during their cycles.  The astringent caused the skin to pucker, and was also found useful in the treatment of hemorroids.

The other common name, Cancer Root was given because it was believed to be beneficial in the topical treatment of cancerous ulcers. It's cousin the Beech Drop also carries this common name for the same reason. 

To ingest its bitter taste, will cause extreme nausea.  I feel sorry for the people who found out the hard way.

Like the Indian Pipe, this plant comes up on its own, and is a poor transplant. It shows its first pale, cream colored, hairless spikes in late Spring, and will bloom soon after, into early Summer.  Tubular flowers begin opening from the bottom up, and will take 3 weeks to complete blooming.  They have no noticeable scent, and will begin wilting and turning brown after pollination. It self seeds, and also depends upon bears digesting it, to spread the seed.

It isn't particular about light sources, growing just as well in the semi dappled shade of its host tree, or under the darker canopy of a forest.  And while this specific species favors the Northeast corner of the United States, it can be found as far West as Iowa, and North, far up into Canada.  Of the 90 species, and 2000 genera of the Broomrape family, they've got the whole continent covered from coast to coast.

So when you are out enjoying those first warm days of Spring, look around the perimeters of trees in Oak or Beech forests for these unique, leafless plants! If you find a colony, you have been given a special gift! Enjoy the moment!


  1. I have been treated to the sight of these unique plants growing in the WildWoods around our house.
    Very cool!

  2. that was really interesting--thanks!